Gender Sites:the Different Lives Men and Women Lead.

Listener: 4 December, 2004.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

Almost 50 years ago, the guest speaker at my school prize-giving was telling the boys how we would experience a number of different careers in our lifetime, unlike our fathers, who seemed to have only one.

I remember realising that my mother had already had a variety of careers, even though she was not yet 40: temporary menial and clerical work after she left school during the Depression, mother and house manager after I came along, and from the early 1950s she was a secretary at a primary school, to pay off the second mortgage on the state house. She was a mother who went back to work before that was standard.

Reading Sites of Gender: Women, Men and Modernity in Modern Dunedin, 1890-1939, edited by Annabel Cooper, Barbara Brookes and Robin Law of the University of Otago, reminded me of how we overlook the experiences of women. The book comes out of the history department’s decision some 30 years ago to study intensively a South Dunedin suburb of Caversham. (An earlier book was the prize-winning Building the New World: Work, Politics and Society in Caversham, 1880s-1920s, by Erik Olssen.)

Since then, staff and students have pored over official records, public sources, newspapers, private papers and oral recollections to build a picture of the lives of those who lived in the area over the past century. Their research has been distilled into individually authored chapters on work, clothing, poverty, transport, spatial mobility, education, health, religion and marriage.

Don’t be put off by the word “gender” in the title. Many books about gender prove to be rants about the lives of women, with shadowy stereotypes of men. But in this case, the authors, who include men, have scrupulously looked at the different experiences of men and women, the contrast not only throwing light on each, but also giving the sense of the individual as well as collective experiences. The contributors would all give insightful addresses to school children. It is too easy to portray an abstract world built around a simplified picture of men’s lives – as economists have done. This book treats both genders as normal – and complex.

Also don’t be put off by the numerous authors of the book. Unlike most, the editors have eliminated repetition and added cross-references between chapters. Not that the authors have lost their character: the book is very well-written. I’m betting that there will be at least one novel using the material as a background, as well as future children’s books.

They needn’t be about Caversham, for despite the intense sense of locality that pervades the book, it is also about many other places and the New Zealanders who live there. Where the local record is inadequate, the writers refer to other New Zealand historians and their studies. In contrast, New Zealand economists tend to ignore all other New Zealand research, continually reinventing the wheel.

Mum grew up in a Christchurch suburb not unlike Caversham, with experiences similar to those the book relates. Time and again I saw flashes of stories parallel to those she had told me of her life. For instance, I could see Mum’s schooling in the chapter on education, which describes the evolution of curriculum for children, with the struggle to treat boys and girls differently and yet the same, to recognise that gender means something, but it does not mean everything and should not limit opportunity. (Caroline Daley tells a similar story in her Girls and Women, Men and Boys: Gender in Taradale 1886-1930). Before Mum was born, Director General of Education George Hogden made momentous decisions that influenced Mum’s and everyone else’s prospects.

Alas, the Depression limited them. Mum should have been a teacher, except they had closed the Teachers Colleges. After I left school, she became a librarian at Hilmorton High School in Christ-church. When she retired, they named the school library after her. But the building and volumes were not her greatest contribution. She encouraged hundreds of children to read, to love good books, a gift she also gave to her three children and six grandchildren.

Dorothy Thelma Easton (April 4, 1919 – November 6, 2004)